What is the future of US education?

Holly Hickman
Writer, GE Look Ahead
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Is STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the future of US education or is there still a place for poetry, improvisation and thinking about what it means to be human? High-stakes testing has steered American students towards the predictably quantifiable; the challenge facing students, parents and educators alike is not only reforming the curriculum to include and inculcate the skills and critical thinking tomorrow’s world requires, but also understanding that an education goes far beyond what is taught in the classroom. This week’s interview is with Rita J. King, executive vice president for business development at Science House, and Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U and The Test. They discuss STEM v STEAM, where America went wrong with testing and what role employers should play in schools.

American education is seemingly obsessed with STEM—a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. What is lost when emphasis is placed squarely on the hard sciences and vocational training? What are the skills that will really matter in the coming decades and does STEM begin to capture them?

Ms Kamenetz: The mission and purpose of education hasn’t changed—it is to help us understand the world around us. Scientific inquiry is a major structure we use to learn more about the world, but what matters is teaching people ways of learning and ways of thinking critically—that can be done within almost any discipline.

Ms King: Beyond critical thinking, I think we need an additional focus on entrepreneurship and improvisation. When I say entrepreneurship, I don’t just mean people who are going to start their own companies, I mean the ability to understand the business value of an idea or a scientific process in order to apply that to creating better societies. And from an improv perspective, the ability to go with the flow is incredibly important. In the Imagination Age—which is what I call this period between the industrial era and the intelligence era—the only constant is change and so going with the flow is a critical skill that is not currently taught in the US.

High-stakes standardised testing has come to define the success or failure of not just students, but also their teachers. Anya, you describe the widening gap between the science of learning and what schools are testing for in your book The Test. What’s falling into that gap?

Ms Kamenetz: Psychometrically verified standardised and automated testing was part of a project by psychometricians to establish psychology as an experimental science. But they sacrificed accuracy for precision. There’s very little evidence that there is such a thing as fixed intelligence, and, certainly, it’s not something that’s fixed over a lifetime. We’ve been stuck with this outdated model of testing even as we’ve attached all these consequences to it in a quest for ever-greater accountability and transparency. That’s why we have to test the tests—to see what the outcomes of our measurements are in the real world. And if those outcomes don’t match what our tests tell us, then you need to change the instrument. If we designed a different kind of assessment to get at what Rita and I both see as a very fluid and collaborative process of sense-making and understanding, we’d have a very different world.

And yet, in the US at least, politics are steering education in the opposite direction. How should parents and policymakers alike implement the changes the two of you are describing?

Ms Kamenetz: Among educators and families, there’s a level of resistance to and understanding that the tests we have are not really serving our kids, but what there isn’t, maybe, is an awareness of the alternatives. It’s industrial age thinking to believe our school system is identical to our education system. We have a universe of educational opportunities that did not exist ten years ago and they consist of small pieces loosely joined. At this moment, school-age children spend an equal amount of time with screens as they do in the classroom, if not more. And the opportunities lie in digital media, in out-of-school learning, in maker spaces, in summer camps, in sports, in community groups—places at the margins where so much of the important work in imagining what schools and learning are going to look like. Since I have a kid, I don’t want to say her time in school is going to be wasted, but I’m very committed to the idea that her experiences at home with family, digital media and community are going to be just as important to her outcome as school.

Speaking of digital media, MOOCs and online courses were briefly heralded as the future of learning before their flaws became apparent and educators cooled to them. What is the right way to bring technology into the classroom?

Ms King: It’s not about whether education takes place in a classroom or on a screen, and it’s not just about replacing the former with the latter. Special skills are required to teach better using technology. Learning and teaching can both be greatly enriched by the introduction of algorithms. For example, many pre-med students fail their biostatistics class. We don’t know how to reverse engineer that class to address the cause of why people fail, but the right algorithm can spot where students go off the rails and enable educators to create a curriculum that will enable more people to complete their studies and, at the same time, will enhance their deep understanding of the material. Teachers who fear losing control in the new environment should understand that while it’s challenging, they can develop an even greater ability to teach by teaming up with technology.

Some companies have stepped into the education debate by creating what they call “STEM academies”—a vocational hybrid of high school and college with a focus on the entrepreneurial skills and critical thinking skills you both talked about earlier. What are the opportunities and dangers of inviting employers to help shape the curriculum?

Ms King: In general, it’s great to prepare students vocationally so they will find work when they graduate. Traditional education doesn’t focus much on vocation, which makes it harder for students to find work when they graduate. But, given the fact that corporations writ large don’t really have an impetus to educate people around the kind of skills that Anya and I have been talking about, I would ask: “Where are the critical life skills going to come from? Who’s going to actually educate these people?” I just hope what doesn’t happen is that the chaos and expense of higher education result in people throwing up their hands and saying, “Okay, fine, if corporations are willing to do it, let them do it.” It’s really a partnership model.

Ms Kamenetz: There are two sides to businesses getting involved in education. The laudable side is where they want to provide context and focus on outcomes, where they’re fostering skills they want and need to see in the workforce. I think forward-looking companies want a full range of humanities-type skills—they want critical thinkers and communicators. But, on the other hand, there are also a lot of corporations that want to profit off education. They want to capture the value and the public investment, and that’s a problem. What’s really important is that the role of private businesses in shaping our education system is channelled and limited and understood clearly for what it is—that they do not have all the answers, that today’s employers are not necessarily going to be tomorrow’s employers and today’s skills are not for a certainty tomorrow’s skills. Educators also have a role to play. There’s a reason education is a public good, because things that are publicly funded are things the market does not provide, and I think it’s very important to maintain that distinction—as it has been historically, so should it be in the future.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Holly Hickman writes for GE Look Ahead. 

Image: A student reads under the afternoon sun on the main campus of Columbia University. REUTERS/Mike Segar 

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